With the Utah Legislature considering more than a dozen restrictive immigration bills, immigration critics have high hopes of victory on issues ranging from repealing in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants to demanding employer verification of workers’ status.
And many are patting new Minuteman chairman Cawley on the back.
“We got over 13 bills this session, and new members to help get our message through,” says Alex Seguras, founder and former director of Utah Minuteman. “We’re really showing a lot of the leadership of Utah that it’s not going to be business as usual this session, and Eli deserves a lot of credit on that.”
Seguras stepped down last June. Since then, Cawley has run the often controversial anti-immigration group. Cawley doggedly monitors legislative floor debates and committee meetings. But for the most part he still remains in the shadow of Seguras. Not a major concern for Cawley, who is just happy to get involved.
“We’ve just had an amazing outpouring of support on this issue,” Cawley says. “It warms my heart.”
While the Minutemen are familiar with critics’ charges that theirs is a racist agenda, Cawley believes the number of immigration bills this session is validation that his group’s beliefs aren’t radical.
“You look, for example, at some of the comments people post online on [immigration news] stories, it’s probably 60 to 85 percent of those people support our agenda, no matter what the article says. Our trouble isn’t with the people, it’s with the elites in our state. Those [companies] who just think about their economic advantage or the churches that are just trying to put more butts in their pews—I don’t have any desire to come together with them, as far as I’m concerned they’re the enemy.”
With the sheer divisiveness of the immigration issue, Cawley knows one of Minuteman’s challenges is to be labeled racist. “I don’t know anyone in our group who has a racist bone in their body,” he says. Just as supporters of the Minuteman Project pointed to Seguras’ Hispanic background to insulate against claims of racism, so do many point out Cawley’s connections.
“People don’t realize his wife is Asian,” says Seguras. “And that she came here the legal way.”
Cawley’s interracial family is actually part of the reason he got involved with the project in 2003. He had attended a diversity assembly at his son’s school.
“They had given my son a little flag of North Vietnam to wave around,” Cawley says. “That’s when I decided there was something wrong in Zion.”
Disgusted by the incident, Cawley soon got involved with the Minuteman Project. To Cawley, the enemy is not any particular race or ethnic group as much as it is calls for diversity. “I’m worried about those people that are gutting citizenship, rule of law and equality of law. Well, [undocumented immigrants] are mostly just trying to get a job.”
University of Utah psychology department researcher Ben Peterson considers Minuteman-like nationalistic concepts of identity as interesting phenomena. “Psychologically these nationalist groups define themselves in reaction to, often, personal experiences of a perceived threat. Usually something that contaminates the sanctity of ‘their’ group.”
Cawley, however, maintains that an identity centered around the “rule of law” isn’t anything negative. “Nobody knows what it means to be an American,” he says. “We can’t make our identity be based on our ethnicity or what food we eat, but we can depend on a legacy bequeathed to us by our founding fathers, based on allegiance to the Constitution and the rule of law.”
Cawley perceives his group as an important political recourse for people who are extremely agitated by the government’s pace in solving immigration problems. “I’ve received calls from some of these folks who say they’ve got the guns and are ready to start a revolution, and it’s scary. I’m afraid the political process will fail, and people will defend their civilization and culture based on race. I hope it doesn’t, but that sentiment seems to be getting more prevalent.”